A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities opens in the year 1775, with the narrator
comparing conditions in England and France, and foreshadowing the
coming of the French Revolution. The first action is Jarvis Lorry’s night
journey from London, where he serves as an agent for Tellson’s Bank.
The next afternoon, in a Dover inn, Lorry meets with Lucie Manette,
a seventeen-year-old French orphan raised in England. Lorry tells
Lucie that her father, the physician Alexandre Manette, is not dead as
she’s always believed. Dr. Manette has just been released from years
of secret imprisonment in the Paris prison, the Bastille.
Lorry escorts Lucie across the English Channel to a house in a
poor Paris suburb where her father, in a dazed state from long
solitary confinement, confusedly works at the shoemaker’s trade he
learned in prison. Dr. Manette has been taken care of by Ernest
Defarge, a former servant of the Manette family, now the keeper of a
wine shop. Defarge and his wife- a strong-looking, confident woman-
appear to be engaged in antigovernment activity. Lucie is saddened
by her father’s state and, resolving to restore him to himself, she
and Lorry carry the doctor back to England.
Five years pass. In London, at Old Bailey (the courthouse) we meet
Charles Darnay, a French expatriate who is on trial for treason. Lucie
Manette and Jarvis Lorry both testify that they met Darnay on their
return trip across the Channel five years earlier. John Barsad, an
English spy, swears that Darnay’s purpose in traveling was to plot
treason against England. Darnay is acquitted when his lawyer, Stryver,
shatters a witness’ identification by pointing at Darnay’s uncanny
resemblance to Sydney Carton- a brilliant but dissolute lawyer who
is wasting his talents in poorly paid servitude to Stryver.
Lucie and her father- who has regained his faculties and returned to
medical practice- now live happily in a quiet corner of Soho with
Lucie’s fiercely loyal companion, Miss Pross. They are frequently
visited by Lorry (now a close family friend), Darnay, and Carton.
Lucie imagines hearing hundreds of footsteps thundering into her
life- a fantasy that in fact foreshadows the revolutionary strife in
France.
The scene shifts to France. Driving in his carriage through the
streets of Paris, the cruel Marquis St. Evremonde runs over and
kills a poor man’s child. We learn that the Marquis is Charles
Darnay’s uncle (out of shame for his wicked male forebears, Darnay had
changed his name from St. Evremonde to the English-sounding Darnay).
Meeting the Marquis at the St. Evremonde chateau, Darnay says he
will renounce the family property when he inherits to show his disgust
with the aristocracy. St. Evremonde expresses his hate of his
nephew, and his continued support of the old, unjust order. The next
morning the Marquis is found stabbed to death. Gaspard, the father
of the boy the Marquis ran over, has killed him as an act of
vengeance.
Back in England again, Darnay becomes engaged to Lucie. Sydney
Carton also declares his hopeless, lasting devotion to Lucie, and vows
he would give his life to save anyone dear to her.
Barsad, now a spy for the French monarchy, tips off the
Defarges in Paris to the impending marriage of Lucie and Darnay.
Privately and meaningfully, Monsieur Defarge comments that he hopes
destiny will keep Lucie’s husband out of France.
The marriage ceremony, together with a story Darnay has told about
discovering hidden papers in a prison, send Dr. Manette into
amnesiac shock. For nine days, until Miss Pross and Jarvis Lorry
pull him out of it, he reverts to his former shoemaking habits. We
learn later that on the wedding morning, Dr. Manette secured
Darnay’s promise not to reveal his true name- St. Evremonde- to
anyone, not even Lucie.
Paris, 1789: the French Revolution breaks out. Defarge leads the
attack on the Bastille, while his wife marshals the revolutionary
women. In the country rebellious peasants burn down the St.
Evremonde chateau. Gabelle, the property’s rent and tax collector,
is eventually arrested and thrown into Paris’ L’Abbaye prison. Rushing
overseas, Darnay is at once seized by the revolutionaries as an
aristocrat, and flung into another prison, La Force. Lucie, her
young daughter, Miss Pross, and Dr. Manette rush to Darnay’s aid,
lodging in Paris near Jarvis Lorry, who’s there on business.
As an ex-Bastille prisoner, Dr. Manette has sufficient influence
to visit his son-in-law in La Force, but he is unable to free
Darnay. For fifteen months Lucie stands each afternoon outside of La
Force, praying that Charles may catch a glimpse of her. The Terror
is in full swing, the guillotine shaving innocent and aristocratic
heads alike.
At last Darnay is brought up before the French Tribunal. He is
released through the testimony of Dr. Manette and the long-suffering
Gabelle. But the very night of his freedom the Defarges and one
other denounce Darnay. On the spot, he is hauled back to the
Conciergerie, the scene of his trial. Ignorant of the disaster, Miss
Pross and Jerry Cruncher, Lorry’s jack-of-all-trades, go shopping
for provisions and encounter Miss Pross’ long-lost brother, Solomon.
Cruncher recognizes Solomon as the spy-witness John Barsad who once
testified against Darnay.
Suddenly Sydney Carton is on the scene (he has come to Paris to help
his friends). Leading Barsad off to Tellson’s headquarters for a
meeting, Carton informs Jarvis Lorry that Darnay has been
rearrested, and forces Barsad to cooperate with him by threatening
to reveal the spy’s turncoat maneuvers. Currently in the pay of the
revolutionaries, Barsad’s job is to spy on their prisoners, and so
he has access to Darnay in the Conciergerie. Carton sets a secret plan
in motion, using Barsad.
Darnay’s retrial the next morning produces a sensation. A journal
discovered by Defarge in Dr. Manette’s old cell at the Bastille is
read aloud to the Tribunal. In his journal Dr. Manette blames his
arrest on two brothers of the St. Evremonde family who had summoned
him to their country house to treat a young peasant wife the younger
St. Evremonde had raped. The woman’s brother lay beyond treatment,
dying from a wound received when he tried to attack the rapist.
After both the brother and sister had died, Dr. Manette received a
visit in his home from the elder St. Evremonde’s wife and her small
son, Charles Darnay. The Marquise St. Evremonde believed the dead
woman had a sister, and wished to make reparations to her. Dr. Manette
attempted to reveal the St. Evremonde brothers’ infamy, but they
arranged for him to be arrested and put in jail. Dr. Manette ended his
story with a curse on the whole St. Evremonde clan, and hid the
document in a hole in the chimney. On this evidence Charles Darnay
is condemned for his ancestors’ evil deeds, and is sentenced to die in
24 hours.
After the verdict, Sydney Carton, drinking in the Defarge wine shop,
overhears Madame Defarge announce that she is the missing sister,
the last survivor of the family exterminated by the St. Evremondes.
She swears to complete her vengeance by wiping out all of Darnay’s
relations- Lucie, her little girl, and even Dr. Manette himself.
Carton goes to Jarvis Lorry’s lodgings where both men receive Dr.
Manette, who, from the shock of Charles’ condemnation has again
slipped into his amnesiac-shoemaker role. Carton warns Lorry of Madame Defarge’s murderous intentions, and they plan an escape from the
country. Carton tells Lorry to keep the proper papers ready, and
when Carton appears at two the next afternoon, all- including Lucie
and her child- will ride swiftly away.
The following day, Carton enters Darnay’s cell, drugs him, and
exchanges clothes with him. Carton intends to take Darnay’s place on
the guillotine, and thus fulfill his old promise to give his life
for anyone dear to Lucie. As agreed, Barsad hurries Darnay’s
unconscious body- dressed as Carton- out of the Conciergerie to the
coach where Jarvis Lorry’s party awaits. All flee successfully.
In the meantime Miss Pross, alone in the Manette apartment, has a
grim meeting with Madame Defarge, who has come armed with pistol and
knife to take her personal revenge. There is a struggle and the pistol
fires, killing Madame Defarge and forever deafening Miss Pross.
Nonetheless, she is able to meet Jerry Cruncher as they have
planned, and escape.
Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine with dignity. (For the first
time Madame Defarge’s ringside seat is vacant.) He comforts a little
seamstress, has a final vision of better times ahead, and reflects:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is
a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.


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